From left, Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda in “Wheelhouse”
Photo by Tracy Martin
Written and performed by Groovelily
Book, music and lyrics by Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda
Directed by Lisa Peterson
TheatreWorks, Mountain View, Calif. (world premiere)
June 9-July 1, 2012
“Wheelhouse,” the new musical at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, is a band show, in the mode of “American Idiot.” Only not nearly as loud. Or fast. Or commercially viable. It’s more of a gentle autobiographical ramble, as the three-person rock group Groovelily turns its back on day jobs and city flats to live and work out of a ramshackle RV, driving across America and taking gigs in church basements, parking lots, school auditoriums and, once, a Laundromat, to hone its skills and build up a fan base.
As such it is amusing, with really listenable songs even if you’re not a rock fan. The lyrics, also written by the band members, are clever as well, when you can hear them. Well performed by the talented Groovelily — Gene Lewin on drums, Brendan Milburn on keyboards, Valerie Vigoda on electric violin and everybody on vocals — it is a little like “Old Man River,” it just keeps rolling along. Until the bus breaks down irrevocably and some decisions need to be made. It’s a pleasant enough hour and a half but, unfortunately, lacks the drama and character development that will keep it rolling as far as the band’s previous TheatreWorks outing, “Striking 12,” which actually made it to the fringes of Broadway.
The band members are likable and surprisingly good actors (of course, they are playing themselves). Val and Brendan are married. He is the mastermind of the touring scheme. She is worried that her eggs are beginning to age. Gene has a girlfriend and day job back home and is madly working his cell phone in order to keep up with them both. He has some commitment issues with regard to everything, including the band. Cute, but not enough to sustain an entire evening. The show ends up being a kind of concert, which is OK but not quite a play.
Backed by three large video screens (Jason H. Thompson, projections designer), the old bus takes us through America at a dizzying pace that can sometimes make you carsick. Some of the most enjoyable moments come at interludes, especially a fantasy sequence where the band members appear on a game show. Brendan, decked out in a gold-trimmed tux, makes a great host. Another time, Val has a momentary walk-on as a waitress in a House of Waffles and she is dynamite. Gene is a terrific, fast-talking used car salesman.
Finally, a regime of fast food, no sleep, flat tires and thunderstorms forces a showdown. Gene sings “I followed you and left myself behind.” That’s OK, Gene, because you left the rest of us behind at the last truck stop. The music is terrific, but not quite enough.